#7 of 2009: Crazy Heart

"I want to talk about how bad you make this room look."

"I want to talk about how bad you make this room look."

Crazy Heart is a film about a man who has to reach rock bottom before he can restart his life and be the man he is meant to be.

Jeff Bridges stars as Bad Blake, a one time country superstar who is now forced to play in bowling alleys and dive bars not because of his talent, but because of his disgust for himself and his choices as well as his addiction to alcohol.  He has a son he never speaks to and his relationships with women doesn’t go any further than the standard one night stand.

While playing a gig in Albuquerque, Blake’s piano player asks him if he will do an interview with his niece, who happens to be a journalist.  Blake agrees and is instantaneously drawn to Jean (wonderfully played by Maggie Gyllenhaal).  She is smart, beautiful, and unabashedly attracted to the talent of Bad Blake.

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#8 of 2009: Avatar

"You look amazing, but doesn't this story seem familiar?"

"You look amazing, but doesn't this story sound familiar?"

While the highest grossing film of all time contains elements of grandeur, it isn’t as great as some of us are making it out to be.  Is Avatar technically groundbreaking?  Absolutely.  Is it mesmerizing aesthetically?  Unquestionably.  Is it a great story?  Not so much.  The more I think about Avatar I cannot get over its “conveniently borrowed” storyline.  Yet, with all its script/story issues, it still deserves the immense distinction it has earned.

My experience watching Avatar was one of intense elevation.  The film sucked me in with its visual creations and progressions.  Even as I watched it for a second time, I began to feel the same way someone who saw Star Wars did in 1977: this is going to change the face of movies forever.  It is clear that James Cameron’s imagination is unmatched and his vision for and execution of Avatar will inevitably go down in history.  Unfortunately though, his talents as a screenwriter are unimpressive.

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#9 of 2009: Up

One of the many visual treats that Up offers.

Typically, Pixar did not disappoint in 2009 with its annual release Up.  Like those that came before it, Up contains a magic that has simply come to be expected of the aforementioned studio.  There were three things that stood out to me: Up’s opening sequence, its animation, and its score.

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#10 of 2009: Invictus

The development of Mandela and Pienaar's relationship drives Invictus.

Clint Eastwood’s Invictus is a special film because of the way it constructs its narrative.  Morgan Freeman had been sitting on the rights to the Nelson Mandela biopic but hadn’t found the right project.  Then John Carlin’s book Playing the Enemy was optioned and the film was greenlit.

Similar to Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby, Invictus is not a film about sports, but instead uses it as a framework in order to tell a larger story.  In this case, the story unabashedly surrounds Mandela.  This could have been the standard biopic about his young life being engulfed by apartheid, his eventual incarceration, release, and rise to the Presidency of South Africa.  Yet, would that have made the film any different from any other retelling of his life?

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Writing History with Lightning

Brad Pitt as Lt. Aldo Raine.

Brad Pitt as Lt. Aldo Raine.

Quentin Tarantino is a filmmaker that has always been conscious of the films and auteurs that came before him.  Constantly paying homage to specific genres, actors, and directors, he demonstrates his love and admiration for cinema through his work.

His most recent offering, Inglourious Basterds, conveys these same reverences however it goes beyond any film he has made up to this point.  Tarantino has always been a master of engagement and subsequently we are very easily drawn into his works.  Our minds are tantalized by his stories, our ears become glued to his exceptional dialogue, and our eyes are stuck, mesmerized by his idiosyncratic shots.

Yet it is in Inglourious Basterds that Tarantino makes a career defining act by moving from being part of the conversation, which he has been doing brilliantly since the early 90’s, to starting one of his own.

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Magic by Hand

Ponyo magically gliding across the ocean.

Ponyo magically gliding across the ocean.

I haven’t seen much of Hayao Miyazaki’s work, but I am aware of his reputation.  I do know that his imagination is unrivaled, his stories are eccentric, and amazingly, all of his films are drawn by hand.  That’s right: no computers or cgi.  Cartoons made the way cartoons should be made.

Ponyo, based on Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid, tells the story of a goldfish named Ponyo who falls in love with a boy Sōsuke (pronounced Soo-skay) and ultimately dreams of transforming into a real human girl.  It is a film that thrives on the magic it emits from its craft.  To quote Roger Ebert, “This is more than ‘artistry.’ It is art.”

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How I Learned About Love Through the Lens

Love at first sight in 500 Days of Summer.

Love at first sight in 500 Days of Summer.

“This is not a love story,” we are immediately told in Marc Webb’s 500 Days of Summer.  Instead, our omnipresent narrator instructs us that it is simply a tale of boy meets girl.  Perhaps that is why after making my way through the film I felt unsettled.  I yearned for more, but was pessimistic in believing that this film could provide me with the kind of closure I craved.

500 Days of Summer is by no means your average romantic comedy.  It aspires to be more: a meditation on the existence of love, the probability of us finding “the one,” channeling heartbreak into personal growth…..  (Cue the cynics who wish to roll their eyes.)  And while these aspirations are lofty and admirable, 500 Days doesn’t seem to be saying anything fresh about the subject.

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